The Modern Prometheus

Creature Awakes and Victor Flees

This year is the 200th anniversary of the first publishing of Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein”. It was first published anonymously, but gave clues to her identity, with a preface written by her husband and her father’s dedication. In 1823, the second edition openly acknowledged Mary as the author. It has been in continuous publication ever since. The engraving to the right was the frontispiece of the 1831 edition. It depicts the moment when the creature awakens and Victor flees in horror.

The frontispiece is part of a rare books exhibit at Washington University, called “Making a Monster” and serves as preamble to this month’s Science on Tap lecture, “Medical Ethics and Frankenstein’s Monster” by Ira Kodner, MD. Dr. Kodner explained that the origin of the “Frankenstein” novel dates from a visit to Lord Byron’s Italian castle that Shelley made. On this visit a thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…) led Byron to propose a writing contest to his guests. The first draft of “Frankenstein” was Mary’s submission.

The creature began life as an adult. He had no family, had no memories, he was all alone. This terrible loneliness soon turned to anger and a desire to seek revenge and commit murder. Shelley’s novel explores serious themes, such as the danger of exercising science on life, but most people are only familiar with the popular caricature of this story. The 1931 Universal movie by the same name and starring Boris Karloff is the prototype for this cartoonish view and not the modern Prometheus that Shelley had created. 

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